Hungary’s imposing capital astride the Danube is one of the most stunning cities in Europe and it comes alive in winter as the festive season approaches. Where2 asked Budapester István Margetin for some tips for a pre-Christmas visit.
“Start your visit,” suggests István, “at the Vörösmarty tér open-air market. it’s famous as the biggest and most traditional Christmas fair in Hungary. Visitors love the handmade folk arts and crafts, and our typical food and drinks. The pavilions sell all sorts of products, from embroidered traditional costumes to wood carvings. The streets are decorated with lights and there’s music, and you can smell wonderful baking. The freezing temperatures are a good excuse to try some Hungarian mulled wine, or some sausage, or a slice of beigli cake.”
The beigli is a Catherine-wheel shaped confection of poppy seeds, walnuts and chestnuts. Other treats include freshly roasted hot chestnuts. István particularly recommends szaloncukor, “a cream- or jelly-filled chocolate wrapped in shiny foil so that it can be hung on a Christmas tree. There’s also konyakmeggy – cherry-brandy-filled chocolate, and szamos marcipán, which is chocolate-covered too. Later you could visit the famous Gerbeaud pastry shop on the square for a coffee or hot chocolate.”
After the market, István proposes a walking tour. Much of the city, including the banks of the Danube, Buda Castle and Andrássy Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, leading to Hõsök Tere (Heroes’ square), is a World Heritage site. start at Heroes’ square on the Pest side of the river. The massive Millennium Monument commemorating the Magyar Conquest of 896 is adorned with statues of old chieftains and kings of Hungary. On one side of the square you’ll find szépművészeti museum (Museum of Fine arts) and on the other Műcsarnok (Museum of Modern art).
“In Városliget city park beyond the statues,” continues our guide istván “are the grand Széchenyi Fürd. medicinal baths. Our country is famous for its geothermal springs and spa culture but not all tourists realize this. There is also the old Király Turkish bath on the Buda side of the river. its domes have cut-out stars to let in the light – it’s lovely! Take a swimsuit if you’re not relaxed about being in the nude”.
Back in Városliget you’ll find Vajdahunyad vára (Vajdahunyad Castle), offering a fascinating blend of architectural styles from famous buildings in different regions of Hungary. “at night,” says István, “the city’s main monuments are beautifully floodlit. Walk along andrássy avenue with its wonderful neo-Renaissance buildings with shops, restaurants and cafés.
“During the daytime, Váci utca is particularly popular for shopping but just a couple of streets away you’ll find a very attractive park that tourists are unlikely to know. it has fountains and flowers, benches and a playground for children. it’s a quiet spot even in wintertime when it’s great for a relaxing walk among the trees – unusual in the middle of a busy city. But for the most relaxing walk in the best park, visit Margit-sziget, the island between Buda and Pest – it offers a great view to both parts of the city.
“You should also stroll over Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge), the first suspension bridge to link Pest and Buda prior to unification. You’ll come to Buda Castle, the royal palace, and surrounding medieval and Baroque buildings. And then there’s Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion), with its fabulous views of the city.
“Back on the Pest side of the river you’ll find the famous Szent István Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Basilica), well known for its organ music concerts. There’s also a small chapel which holds the remains of the St. Stephen’s right hand”.
For eating out, István recommends Sir Lancelot on Podmaniczky u. 14, for a medievally boisterous evening! “You’ll eat with your fingers – ask for a knife if you like but you won’t get a fork! Sometimes there’s entertainment – perhaps fencing among the tables or live music”. Öreg Halász (the Elderly Fisherman), a little further downtown, is quieter. its walls are decorated with old fishing gear “and as well as lots of fish dishes, you can order excellent szürkemarha gulyás – goulash using beef from the famous Hungarian szürkemarha breed of cattle”. it sounds enticing but istván’s favourite restaurant is Magdaléna Merlo, where he
particularly enjoys “piquant game ragout soup served in a hollowedout rye cob, or the duck steak with chilli and blackberry. You’ll find it next to the Hungarian academy of Music and close to Liszt Ferenc tér, a square filled with cafés and restaurants for tourists. But to my mind Magdaléna is far better!
“Finally, before you leave Budapest, if you have children and there’s enough snow, let them do what I used to do as a child – toboggan down the slopes of Városliget, the city’s park – it’s wonderful! But, if there’s no snow and if they like old toys, you might like to compensate and take them to one of the city’s old toyshops – perhaps Ölomkatonák on Teréz krt. 32, where you’ll find ‘retro’ toys including tin soldiers and cars; the sort of thing I used to play with 20 years ago!” it all sounds magical!